There are many reasons why you may want to make yoga a daily habit. Yoga can help us improve our fitness, manage anxiety and maintain our health – and on the simplest level, it can be a very pleasant and calming way to spend half an hour or so. However, starting any new habit tends to come with its own challenges, and we can find even our best intentions are scuppered by a few bad days or a loss of focus.
You may even already do a little yoga, but are finding the transition to making it a daily habit difficult, in spite of a sincere desire to develop your practice. Luckily, there are ways to create new healthy habits in our everyday lives: we just need to find out a little about how our minds work.
How Habits Work
The thing about habits is that they are so automatic, we tend not to think about them. Before public health campaigns put the dangers of smoking so firmly in people’s minds, it’s likely that most people lit up, breathed in and stubbed out with little or no thought about the action at all. Habits are generally subconsciously driven, which is why it’s so easy to find ourselves enacting a habit even when our conscious mind is telling us not to; one thing happens without resistance, the other takes thought, effort and change.
Psychologists call the three-step process of habits ‘Trigger, Routine, Reward’, or TRR. Firstly, you experience an external trigger which you have associated with the habit. Then, that trigger instantly activates your subconscious behavioural pattern, and your subconscious mind begins driving your actions; this could be a physical activity or a thinking pattern you engage in. Finally, there’s often the reward that the habit brings.
It’s this reward which makes us repeat behaviour and deeply embeds a pattern of behaviour in our mind – like being allowed to go to sleep once we’ve brushed our teeth. Once you experience a trigger, the subconscious takes over, guiding you automatically to the reward you have learnt to expect.
For example, someone who bites their nails may be rewarded with a feeling (which is often barely perceptible) of comfort. Everything we do creates a specific neural network in the brain, which can either be strengthened or weakened, but never disappears entirely.
Using the Psychology of Habit Forming
Despite what some self-help articles may tell us, there is no way to “hack” our brains to make them work how we want. Although on the surface these processes may seem simple, our brains are incredibly complex organic entities, and not machines that we can trick or program.
This being said, we can potentially use the knowledge of how habits work to our advantage when we aim to make yoga a regular feature in our lives. Here are just a few ways you can take steps towards yoga becoming an effortless daily habit.
1. Tailor the Habit to Suit You
Wendy Wood, Provost Professor of Psychology and Business at USC , explains that people who achieve their goals and make positive lifestyle changes don’t do so by having more willpower than everyone else, but by finding ways around it. “What we’ve learned is that people with high self-control are not going through these white-knuckle struggles to eat better, exercise more or work harder. Instead, what they do is form habits.”
The conclusion we can draw from this is that we don’t necessarily need to exert strength of will to begin a daily yoga practice, but instead do what we can to make the habit come more naturally. If you are a social person, you may want to organize doing yoga with a friend or partner. This is also a great option if you don’t like letting people down, and are unlikely to cancel on someone.
Alternatively, you may find pre-paying for studio time at the gym a big motivation, or if you love to walk to the beach or park every day with your dog, you might find it best to do yoga there. Yoga is an extremely personal practice, and allowing it to adapt to you – as well as change and grow as you do – is one way to integrate it into your routine.
2. Enjoy the Process
Having goals can be hugely motivating, especially when we see progression. However, at times they can also be a discouraging factor. If you are too focused on achieving something in yoga (like a certain pose) you could become disenchanted if it doesn’t happen in the time you expected. In order to reinforce the “reward” aspect of TRR it can be helpful, instead of focusing on goals, to mentally note how you feel better after each practice.
By thinking of the everyday benefits and emphasizing the positive, you will remind yourself that yoga is something which can improve your wellbeing and make you feel calmer in the moment, as well as providing wider benefits throughout life.
3. Acknowledge That Habit-Forming Takes Time
The biggest part of making yoga something you do every day is consistency and repetition. Pick a time of day that will be easiest for you to stick to, and if you can’t do half an hour of yoga on any given day, see if you can make time for five minutes. Studies have shown that simple repetition can be enough to cement a habit, and associating with a “cue” also helps – such as practicing yoga after your morning shower.
This means working with the habits you already have. For example, if you always have a cup of tea when you get in from work, this could become the introduction to “yoga time”, where you think about how your practice may look that day, and roll out the mat as soon as you’ve finished drinking. Building something of a ritual around yoga can also help, perhaps by designating your favourite spot in the house or lighting candles beforehand.
Of course, because life gets in the way, you may miss one or two days here or there. The trick is not to think “I’ve ruined everything”, but to remain positive, reminding yourself that you are looking forward to doing some yoga tomorrow. An all or nothing approach can put paid to any resolution, and as soon as you start thinking about yoga in the terms of something negative or that makes you feel guilty, it will be far harder to make it a seamless part of your life.
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Heather Mason is a yoga therapist and founder of The Minded Institute, a business that provides yoga therapy courses in the UK supporting those experiencing mental health issues such as PTSD and other chronic conditions. Heather moved to Asia and trained as a yoga teacher after experiencing depression and anxiety and developed her interest in mind-body therapies.